“How he rolls the vocables!”

rouse

“A Rouse for Stevens”

(To Be Sung in a Young Poet’s Saloon)

by Theodore Roethke

 

Wallace Stevens what’s he done?

He can play the flitter-flad;

He can see the second sun

Spinning through the lordly cloud.

He’s imagination’s prince:

He can plink the skitter-bum;

How he rolls the vocables,

Brings the secret — right in Here!

Wallace, Wallace, wo ist er?

Never met him, Dutchman dear;

If I ate and drank like him,

I would be a chanticleer.

( TOGETHER )

Speak it from the face out clearly:

Here’s a mensch but can sing dandy.

Er ist niemals ausgepoopen,

Altes Wunderkind.

( AUDIENCE )

Roar ’em, whore ’em, cockalorum,

The Muses, they must all adore him,

Wallace Stevens — are we for him?

Brother, he’s our father!

theodore_roethke

This rollicking  burlesque for young poets in tribute to Stevens just adds to the accumulation of respect Stevens received from other poets.   The jaunty style, the setting, the word-play are a fitting tribute to Stevens.   The Great Man of Hartford inspired many light verses in his honor.  Why?  Because Stevens can be so much fun to read.  Stevens can be a joy to imitate.  “Er ist niemals ausgepoopen,” probably means that “he is never screwed up” to offer  a very mild translation.

Roethke is a poet I cherish more with each passing decade.  He has affinities with Stevens and even if he’s squeamish about the line “Brother, he’s our father” much of his verse seems to be engaging with Stevens–conversing with him or talking back to him.

 

Listening:  “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.  It’s somber organ chords and it’s repetitions make it a perfect autumnal piece.   And yet it’s also of a very English pastoral mood.  Like “The Lark Ascending” its aim seems to transcend the melancholy and lift the listening spirit.   I play this in tribute to Neville Marriner.  As my mother aged, the music of Delius and Vaughan Williams moved her more than any others and she reread Thomas Hardy with a fervency that I can identify with.

 

 

 

Saffron Ice-Cream

This is yet another part of my week-long tribute to the birthday of Wallace Stevens.  This short poem by British poet, Martin Bell (1918-1978) picks up on the gourmet/gourmand interests of Stevens.  It also reflects the variety of Stevens’s diction from the “Doggone” to the “rococo” and the dissonance between the praise and the bray.  “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” is certainly invoked.   It’s a nifty  six-line tribute to two men who toiled to illuminate the unconscious, the active imagination, and the many links between art and the human mind.

Martin Bell:

 

Wallace Stevens  Welcomes Doctor Jung into Heaven

‘Doggone, they’ve let you in at last, Doc! Gee,
I’m real glad .’ And indicated angels puffing horns
Rococo with praise and bray and bray,
And proffered to him saffron ice cream cones
Topped up with glacé cherries and chopped cashew nuts.
‘Ach! Horn of Plenty,’ the good Doctor said.saffronicecream

 

Notes on the day:  I’m currently listening to Haydn’s String Quartet Opus 76, number 5.  What harmonic playfulness!  He mixes his notes to achieve the “cantabile e mesto” attribution he gave it:  “singing and sad”.   I think 2016 can fairly be called the year of the string quartet for me.  I have had operatic years, symphonic years, years of concerti and ballet.  Years of all cello all the time and years of Maria Callas and Edward Elgar.

 

Reading:  I am currently reading White Trash:  The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by historian Nancy Isenberg.  I am only one generation away from “white trash” so I find the book particularly intriguing.  I am also reveling in the opposition:  The Rector of Justin by Louis Auchincloss, the saga of the headmaster of a prestigious New England boarding school.

“Lions in Sweden”: Happy Birthday, Wallace Stevens

wallacestevens

William Stafford on Wallace Stevens:

If I Could Be Like Wallace Stevens

The octopus would be my model—
it wants to understand; it prowls
the rocks a hundred ways and holds
its head aloof but not ignoring.
All its fingers value what
they find. “I’d rather know,” they say,
“I’d rather slime along than be heroic.”

 

My pride would be to find out; I’d
bow to see, play the fool,
ask, beg, retreat like a wave—
but somewhere deep I’d hold the pearl,
never tell. “Mr. Charley,”
I’d say, “talk some more. Boast again.”
And I’d play the banjo and sing.

 

I like the many Stevensian elements Stafford has included, although the Octopus seems to point much more to Marianne Moore than to Stevens.   “I’d rather slime along than be herioc” is a good motto for the true artist, who is caught up in his work and not looking for accolades.  Stafford humbly chooses the banjo as his instrument; ceding the guitar, I think, to Stevens.octopus

wallacestevens

Arpeggios of Autumn: Happy Birthday, Counselor Stevens

Today marks the  137th birthday of Wallace Stevens.   I cannot claim that I understand his work, but I am swooped into his colorful aesthetic world of gorgeous peacocks and bananas and colorful language and sound-effects.   He’s a poet of jollity and melancholy.  He’s a poet of range and arrangement.  He’s a poet of euphony and cachinnations.  He’s a poet of sensuous and sensual arousings and carousings.

I cannot explicate the pleasures of Stevens for you if you do not get them at once.   Imagine you are in an exciting art museum full of canvases splashed with color amidst some that are solemn and thoughtfully grey and cerebral.  That is Stevens.  You may not understand it  all, but it’s exciting especially if you allow yourself to enjoy the experience.   And in the museum there is a zoo of colorful animals living an active life of grooming and bellowing and making mating displays.  rousseaupainting

Here’s a taste of Stevens:  “Tinsel in February,” “Mrs. Alfred Uruguay,” “Tom-tom, c’est moi,”  “apostrophes are forbidden on the funicular,” “Old pantaloons, duenna of the spring!,”,”In the Clear Season of Grapes,” “Soupe Aux Perles:  Health-o, when ginger and fromage bewitch”, “Dezembrum,” A sunny day’d complete Poussiniana,” “Jot these milky matters down,” “The plum survives its poems,” “The moonlight / Fubbed the girandoles,” “Floral Decorations for Bananas,” “Gloomy grammarians in golden gowns.”

Yes, it is not great to take things out of context but these brief snippets of Stevens will, I hope, convince you that entering his glittery and giddy world can be a pleasure.

Classics Club Spin Game

  • roulettewheel

I like the random.  Somewhat.  I am going to vow to follow these rules as set forth by the Classics Club at http://www.theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com

 

  • Go to your blog.
  • Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List.
  • Try to challenge yourself: list five you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose.)
  • Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog by next Monday.
  • Monday morning, we’ll announce a number from 1-20. Go to the list of twenty books you posted, and select the book that corresponds to the number we announce.
  • The challenge is to read that book by December 1, even if it’s an icky one you dread reading! (No fair not listing any scary ones!)

 

Monday, October 3:  And it’s number 1!  I’ll read The Late George Apley by John Marquand

Here is my list:

  1.  John P. Marquand:  The Late George Apley
  2. Barbara Pym:  Some Tame Gazelle
  3. Somerset Maugham:  Of Human Bondage
  4. John Galsworthy:  The Man of Property
  5. Anthony Trollope:  Autobiography
  6. Elizabeth Taylor:  The Soul of Kindness
  7. Thomas Mann:  Death in Venice
  8. Thomas Hardy:  Desperate Remedies
  9. Henry James:  Daisy Miller
  10. Sinclair Lewis:  The Job:  An American Novel
  11. Edith Wharton: The Bunner Sisters
  12. Clemence Dane:  Regiment of Women
  13. Sarah Orne Jewett:  The Country of the Pointed Firs
  14. Betty Smith:  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
  15. Herman Melville:  Benito Cereno
  16. Iris Murdoch:  The Nice and the Good
  17. Anthony Hecht:  Complete Poetry
  18. Elizabeth Bishop:  Complete Poems
  19. Katherine Mansfield:  Short Stories (Complete)
  20. Shakespeare:  King Lear

“As Kingfishers Catch Fire”

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is–
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Father Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hopkins, like other poets, is a master of making a “joyful noise” from a tormented spirit (see Tennyson, In Memoriam, for example). Surrounded by various kinds of rejections and dejections, he was able to deal out “that being indoors” with splendid poetry that hardly seems stylistically Victorian.

Hopkins used dialect, archaic words, coined words, portmanteau words in his poems and they can astonish by their strangeness and their rightness. His heavy use of alliteration, repetition, rhyme, assonance and other poetry devices please me enormously.

One need not be religious to appreciate God and Christ and religious imagery in literature. The cultural and aesthetic ideals of religion are at their best when showcased in great art, in my opinion. It’s easy to love the artistic and humane achievement of poems such as this: “The achieve of, the mastery of” the language is exciting and compelling. I’d like to shout out an holla of gratitude to Robert Bridges, who arranged for the posthumous publication of most of Hopkins’s poetry. Very little had been published in his lifetime. This is what “Language poetry” should be, as opposed to the opaque and almost unreadable, to me, poetry of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E= poets. What Hopkins does with the English language is breathtaking. And, like a nostalgic Thomas Hardy, “wishing it might be so” (of the religious superstitions of his youth) Hopkins almost makes me with it might be so that the “just man justices” and “keeps all his goings graces.”kingfishers

Nostalgia

nostalgiawomen-war-workers-wwi-5
In my last post I described the beauty of “strangeness” and how it can capture the imagination with its oddity. Most poems are strange ballets. Another category of poem that I appreciate (and more and more with age) is what I’d call the poetry of nostalgia. So many great poems are infused with a kind of quiet, melancholy sense of nostalgia—just a whiff of ruefulness or a lingering scent of longing for a past—a past idealized, perhaps, but a past that seems better, more innocent than what we know now. The nostalgic poem can be rendered stupid by too much sentimentality—“How Dear to My Heart Is the Old Oaken Bucket,” has a rather cheap and paltry sentimentality.Oscar Wilde says that “A sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” James Joyce says that “Sentimentality is unearned emotion.” The great WB Yeats writes that , “Rhetoric is fooling others. Sentimentality is fooling yourself.” Flannery O’Connor warns that ““To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness”.

Sentimentality is an easy bathos which can serve as a kind of emotional antechamber to a more knowing, more transcendent love of beauty. When I was about nine years old I kept rereading the passage in Little Women where young Beth dies. Alcott writes that “Beth, who keeps the house is always kind and gentle” and sets up the young female reader who is typically racked with guilt because she is not automatically “always kind and gentle” as the superlative Beth. Beth’s death scene is indeed a kitschy theatre of pathetic fallacy. Many years later it all seems like alien corn to me, but I think that the place of sentimental poetry is to get a person invested in words and their invocation of emotion.

John Keats rightly says, “We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us”. The old oaken bucket and Beth’s death and Kilmer’s trees want to bludgeon us. And they serve their purpose if they bludgeon us into emotional or intellectual receptivity of more subtle poetry.

The poetry of nostalgia gives us a glimpse of a past. This past was, perhaps, one that seemed unredeemable at the time. It takes us back to a time and a place that, even if we never knew it, now swim into our ken as if a real memory.

I like this poem by the remarkable Philip Larkin:

MCMXIV
Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;
And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day–
And the countryside not caring:
The place names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word–the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
Philip Larkin

Larkin conjures up a past world in which children named Albert or Bertha play innocently in the brilliant sun of August not yet aware of the impending Guns of August. His tone is nostalgic but I read a good deal of irony infusing the nostalgia. These men are about to go to the deaths. They don’t know if they are on a lark or in the dark. Nature, silent, does not embrace them. Larkin mentions the servants in their tiny rooms and the poem almost necessarily becomes a critique of the past just as it remains nostalgic.

As a title, “MCMXIV” conjures up war memorials and the kinds of mostly solemn occasions in which Roman Numerals are used (I know my Roman numerals because movies like to “sign themselves” with their dates).

Like all great poems, it opens up questions instead of resolving them. Is the speaker imagining a memory? Glancing at a photograph? Trying to share sentiments that are not ruled by a subject and a predicate—in one sentence that goes on for 32 lines?